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Jazz Appreciation Month: Northwest Favorite Jazz Broadcaster Jim Wilke

Jim Wilke at Tula's Jazz Club, September 2019
Jim Levitt
Jim Wilke at Tula's Jazz Club, September 2019

He’s an Earshot Jazz Golden Ear Award Winner, broadcaster and originator of Jazz After Hours on public radio and champion of live jazz everywhere. For Jazz Appreciation Month, KNKX Music Director Carol Handley talked with Jim Wilke about his appreciation of the NW jazz scene and capturing it in live recordings.

The name Jim Wilke has long been known in jazz circles in the Northwest and nationally. You may know him as the host of Jazz Northwest that airs here every Sunday at 2 o’clock. Many around the country know Jim as the originator and host of Jazz After Hours on public radio from 1984 to 2014.

Like many music radio hosts, Jim grew up listening to late night radio. He was tuning into a New Orleans station from his home in Iowa. The AM station could be heard states away presenting jazz, and Jim started connecting the dots from the jazz players who made their way through various bands as sidemen and leaders.

And lucky for us, he eventually started his own radio career landing in Seattle. He had a long stint at KING-FM where he had an opportunity to record players in bands coming through town. Sort of like our studio sessions but opposite. He brought the studio to them in a famous and now-defunct Seattle Jazz club.

Jim: This new club had started called the Penthouse in downtown Seattle, and the possibility was extended that perhaps we might do a special live broadcast from there. So we did not only one, but then we decided to make it monthly then we decided to make it weekly and so we did over 200 live broadcasts from there. Some of the most memorable ones were like John Coltrane, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver, The Modern Jazz Quartet, George Shearing, Gary Burton, who was just a young vibes star who couldn’t buy a drink at the bar the first time he played there.

Carol: Those recordings survive, and there became an interest to release some of them as albums.

Jim: I think the very first one that came out was … I answered the phone one day, and it was “Hello, Jim.”  I said “yes” – “This is Joe Williams.” “Oh Really.” But he was in the studio recording a new album, and it was with the same trio that he had played the Penthouse with and says, “I have this tape of my performance at the Penthouse, and we’re thinking of combining with the recording we’re making today and calling it Joe Williams Then and Now." So that was the first one, from there it’s gone onto Cannonball Adderley, Johnny Griffin and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, a really great swinging quintet featuring two tenor saxophones and the more recent batch was Wynton Kelly Trio with Wes Montgomery. This was like Miles Davis’ rhythm section with Wes Montgomery on guitar. These came out on CD but also on LP as well, on vinyl and really came out in a limited edition which promptly sold out in the first week or two.

Carol: Jim is also known around town for continuing his recordings for broadcast but with a focus on Jazz Northwest, his Sunday show, where he takes a tour of the regional jazz scene championing artists from Vancouver, B.C. to Portland, Oregon. Of course, this community has been pretty devastated by COVID.

Jim: Well, I think the main problem, the musicians are certainly ready to go. Many are saying they are getting a little rusty from not playing in groups, playing together. It’s such a big part of what this music is all about. It’s about the society, the socialization that goes on in a club. The interaction between musicians and audience. It’s just a part of the feel of the music more so than perhaps any other kind of music.

Carol: You’ve been in the Northwest jazz scene for quite a while, Jim, what are you proudest of?

Jim: I think we have great diversity, I think we have highly talented musicians who are on a par with anybody you’ll find elsewhere. One of the reasons why I got into it was, it was at a time when there was not much recording being done by Northwest musicians and I thought there were some not very well represented and I just wanted to pull a few coattails and tug a few sleeves about these great musicians who are around here.

Carol: Jim continues his long career as a broadcaster and looks forward to getting back out there, like the rest of us, to catch some live music. For Jazz Appreciation Month – I’m Carol Handley.